This article appears in The Times today.
“IT IS PARTICULARLY difficult for a Pope that comes from Germany to come here,” said Pope Benedict XVI at Auschwitz at the weekend. The difficulty lies in his being Pope more than being German — even a German of his generation. Benedict’s praying for forgiveness in his native language has been widely remarked on, but it was an apt gesture.
The agency directly responsible for the death camps — Nazi tyranny — was shattered and defeated 60 years ago. No fair critic would hold Benedict culpable for his involuntary conscription in the Hitler Youth. There is, moreover, no more civilised and tolerant nation than postwar Germany.
The potent image of Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling, in 1970, before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto symbolises the nation’s atonement for the Holocaust. The achievement of German statesmen in building a “militant democracy” purged of xenophobia and authoritarianism is to this day not properly recognised in the English-speaking world.
Yet the Roman Catholic Church, which was not at all an agent of genocide and whose adherents included many heroic benefactors and rescuers of Jews, continues to be the subject of vigorous historical debate concerning its role in those dark times. The paradox needs explaining, and resolving.
The Pope’s prayer at Auschwitz asked where God had been during the Holocaust. For some of us, the question is an ineradicable obstacle to religious faith, but it is still nothing like as tough a question for Christians as where God had been in the preceding two millennia. Why did God, with omniscient knowledge of the suffering to come, not move his followers to abjure the imagery of anti-Semitism? Catholic sins in that ignoble history are not only ones of omission.
The Second Vatican Council, opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, historically renounced the notion of a collective guilt on the part of the Jews for the death of Jesus, and denounced “all outbreaks of hatred, persecutions and manifestations of anti-Semitism which have been directed against the Jews at any time by anyone”. But there is an irreducible element in the New Testament that holds the Jews culpable for the rejection of Christ.
How could it be otherwise? God selected the Jews to prepare for His Coming. Jesus announced that he was “not sent but unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. He drew a band of disciples, all of them Jews and one of them the man whom Catholics regard as their first Pope. Yet the Jews, merely by remaining Jews, rejected him. When the lethal accusation of deicide is removed from Christian orthodoxy, this brute historical fact remains. Even 20th-century Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain, in his book A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question, could not rid themselves of the assumption that the Jews are somehow historically aberrant.
At Auschwitz, of all places, Benedict might have referred to the biblical and Catholic roots of European anti-Semitism. He preferred to concentrate on the heroism of Catholic witnesses against Nazism. The picture he gave was thereby highly misleading.
The Pope prayed in the cell where a Polish Franciscan, Maximillian Kolbe, was starved and incarcerated before being murdered by the Nazis. Kolbe was canonised by Pope John Paul II. Yet Kolbe’s writings evince a firm belief in the veracity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the existence of a Masonic-Jewish conspiracy. John Paul’s canonisation of Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun and died at Auschwitz, caused still more trouble. The Church’s celebration of martyrs against Nazi barbarism is unerringly partial. It decries the blasphemous claims of authority, while sparing few words for the integrity of Jewish history.
This is why the Church’s witness at Auschwitz and elsewhere causes at least as much friction as amity. Hitler retained a certain respect for the outward forms of the Catholic Church, its history and ritual, and explicitly aimed to avoid open confrontation with it. Recent polemic against the wartime Vatican — that the reigning Pope Pius XII was somehow “Hitler’s Pope” — has been a model of overstatement. It has been countered by Catholic apologists talking up Pius’s actual acts of defiance — attempting to halt deportations in some occupied countries — and emphasising the pagan elements of Nazism. But the implied question about Christian responsibility is a good one. As the philosopher Emil Fackenheim, a refugee from Nazism, observed: “For Christians, the first priority may be theological self-understanding. For Jews it is, and after Auschwitz must be, simple safety for their children.”
Pope Benedict pointed at Auschwitz to literally the worst crime of our age, which was committed by those who certainly considered themselves emancipated from superstition, and the agents of supposedly scientific notions of race.
But no amount of theological reflection will render future generations immune from the atavistic forces that aimed at the destruction of every last Jew in Europe, and to which the Church certainly made a historical contribution. I have no interest at all in the fortunes of Judaism, but a great concern in the resilience of historically persecuted peoples. Only by removing the accumulated detritus of malign ideologies can that happen.
Organised religion, even in the form of so learned a man as Pope Benedict, is one of the obstacles. Revealed truth cannot be discarded, precisely because it does not come from human reason: it can only be accepted or rationalised. Yet revelation turns out to be a highly unreliable guide. There was no revelation to the Catholic faithful till Vatican II that the Jews were not Christ-killers. There has never yet been a divine revelation, to my knowledge, that freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended. If there ever is, it will paradoxically be because the way liberal civilisation operates has superseded the traditional religious imagination. It is time it did.